Thursday, Oct 21, 2021
Trustees adopt resolution for Van Cleve House to be renamed Alumni House
by Adam Grybowski
Rider University will remove the name “Van Cleve” from an 18th-century house on its campus following the discovery that its namesake, Benjamin Van Cleve, supported slavery. The move follows the adoption of a resolution supporting the name change by Rider’s Board of Trustees on Oct. 20.
Van Cleve, a Revolutionary War veteran and statesman, held enslaved people as a private citizen and spoke out in support of slavery and strengthened restrictions on enslaved peoples as a New Jersey legislator around the turn of the 19th century. The house that had conventionally bore his name was part of the property Rider purchased in 1956 as it prepared to move its campus from Trenton to Lawrenceville.
The renaming was recommended by the Task Force on Rider and the History of Slavery. Formed in the summer of 2020, the task force was charged with investigating Rider’s historical relationship and connection with slavery and enslaved people and recommending how the University can recognize and educate around this history.
“Van Cleve's support of slavery, both as a private citizen and a legislator, makes it inappropriate for Rider to continue having one of its building named after him,” said President Gregory G. Dell’Omo, Ph.D., and John Guarino ‘82, chair of Rider’s Board of Trustees in a joint statement announcing the name change. “Van Cleve chose to champion the institution of slavery even as other citizens in New Jersey awoke to the cause of abolition and the horrors of human bondage. Judged by the standards of his time or ours, Van Cleve’s actions and attitudes have no place in the Rider community.”
The house has been used in various ways over the years, first as a student residence, then as the Admissions building and, since 1993, as the location for Rider’s Office of Alumni Relations. Moving forward, it will simply be called “Alumni House.”
A new temporary sign was erected in front of the house on Route 206 on Oct. 21. Rider also plans to install materials near the house that educate around this history and memorialize those who were enslaved. Following the Board’s adoption of the resolution supporting these recommendations, Rider also launched a new section of its website dedicated to sharing information about the task force and its findings.
“As an institution of higher education, we have a valuable role to play in increasing our knowledge and understanding of the abhorrent institution of slavery,” Dell’Omo said. “And as a community committed to diversity, equity and inclusion, we have an obligation to act in ways that champion those values. Enacting the task force’s recommendations helps Rider accomplish both of these things.”
The task force was co-chaired by Dr. Evelyn McDowell, the chair of Rider’s accounting department, and Dr. Brooke Hunter, an associate dean of Rider’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, where she is also an associate professor of history. Hunter is also the Lawrence Township historian and McDowell is a founding board member of the National Society of the Sons & Daughters of the United States Middle Passage, a lineage society that works to preserve the memory and history of slavery. The task force’s research illuminated the story of a familiar if obscure name to many who have been associated with Rider over the years.
Research shows that Van Cleve simultaneously fought for the ideal of liberty while also participating in and championing the cruelty of slavery and the degradation and dehumanization of Black Americans.
In an article in Rider’s alumni magazine, Hunter said, “The story of Benjamin Van Cleve forces us to confront the paradox of liberty and slavery in American history.”
He was born in Maidenhead, the forerunner to Lawrence Township, in 1739. He served in the Revolutionary War and in government in several capacities, including four times as speaker of the New Jersey Assembly. As a representative, he voted in favor of maintaining slavery as a racial system of perpetual bondage, passed from mother to child, and for strengthening restrictions on enslaved peoples. As a private citizen, records show that he was a slaveholder.
Now that these facts have come to light, “We cannot continue to hold him up, even tacitly, as worthy of honor or emulation,” Dell’Omo and Guarino said.